For every fault the NFL has, its current 16-game schedule template for the regular season is nearly perfect.
That isn’t to say tweaks couldn’t be made – most notably when it comes to Thursday Night Football, still not very popular among players – or perhaps interconference play, where, under the current format, teams only play a single game in a stadium from the opposite conference once every eight years.
Still, the 16-game format, which has been in place since 1978, remains the best possible program for the NFL as labor talks roll on between the NFL and the NFL Players Association. The current collective bargaining agreement, signed in 2011, expires following the 2020 season.
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One item being discussed between the sides is the expansion of the schedule to 18 regular season games. While this would ultimately lead to a bigger piece of the revenue pie for the players, this would also mean two more weeks of players putting their bodies at risk ... unless it doesn’t.
One idea that’s emerged from the talks has been the proposal for an 18-game schedule in which players can appear in only 16 games.
“I think the fans deserve better than that,” Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater said. “Do you want to come to two games and not see Tom Brady play? Do you want to come to two games and not see Patrick Mahomes play? Drew Brees? Michael Thomas? Odell Beckham?”
Slater, set to enter his 12th NFL season – all with the Patriots – isn’t a fan of expanding the schedule to 18 games, regardless of how it’s done.
“I think when you talk about player health and safety, I don’t know how adding more games is going to solve that,” he said. “I don’t know how the two add up.”
In a world in which more and more is being learned about the health risks of playing in the NFL, namely when it comes to concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, adding on games to an already rigorous slate borders on irresponsible and reckless.
But what if the NFL could find a way to expand the length of the regular season without adding in more games?
While each team currently plays 16 regular season games, they do so over the course of 17 weeks. The NFL reestablished a bye week to its schedule in 1990, something which has worked best when there’ve been an even number of teams in the league. Currently, at an even 32, there’s no need for a team to be idle in Week 1 before playing 16 straight games, or a team to run through 16 games before getting a breather in Week 17.
It’s hardly a revolutionary idea, but one that’s seldom heard: why not tack on a second bye week?
The football wouldn’t stop for every team on the second bye. That’s another week of Sunday Night Football, Monday Night Football, and yes, Thursday Night Football, the dangers of which would be negated by stacking bye weeks for a team before they appear on Thursday night.
When it comes to the additional primetime slots, everybody wins. More money for the TV networks, more money for the owners, more money for the players.
No more quick turnarounds from Sunday afternoon to Thursday night, with teams often traveling multiple time zones away.
It’d be an 18-week regular season that could start the weekend after Labor Day and extend one week further into the winter. It’s not like one week is going to make that much of a difference in temperature for a potential AFC Championship Game in Foxboro or NFC Championship Game in Green Bay.
While it would likely require some creative bargaining on the part of the players, the season could also start a week earlier, over Labor Day, thus cancelling Week 4 of the preseason. With an increased emphasis on joint practices between teams in recent years, who really cares about a fourth preseason game?
Slater wouldn’t stop at tweaking the regular season schedule, though. He believes there are facets of the NFL’s offseason program, things that mainly fly under the radar, which also stand to be improved.
“I think there’s some things that we can do in the offseason as far as allowing our players to train here with our strength coaches year-round,” he said. “Ultimately, I think that’s going to help our players on the field. There’s a lot of things that I would do. Hopefully, we can arrive on something that we can all feel good about moving forward and put our game in a better place.”